Many of you know Ron Copeland from way back, when he was that scrawny bearded hippie guy that ran The Little Grill (Harrisonburg’s oldest existing restaurant) from the years 1992 – 2003 – a young man with a wild vision of serving a free meal to “Anyone in the World.” Ron’s “Free Food For All” Monday soup kitchen was a fixture in the Harrisonburg community for a long time.
And while the fundamentals of that idea still hold true, the older, wiser Ron Copeland of today realizes that he had to reign it in a tad and give it some defined edges to get the effect he desired.
After leaving the Little Grill in 2003, Ron turned his focus to the building across the street, Our Community Place. Ron demonstrated his belief in the connection among all things when he provided leadership to some of his Little Grill Restaurant workers and together, they transformed the Grill into a worker-owned collective, where the people who work there work hard because they own the place. It makes perfect sense. However, Ron didn’t immediately apply that same philosophy at Our Community Place. He still, like young Ron, wanted to fling open the doors and help anyone and everyone.
While Harrisonburg looked in awe at all Ron was doing for the community, what you might not know was that he found himself struggling to “help anyone and everyone.” To do so required a good bit of money, which led to multiple fundraising projects going on at once that became unsustainable for Ron and his tiny crew. OCP needed an overhaul.
A couple of things brought about this overhaul. First, Ron read Toxic Charity, which caused him to ask himself, “How do I know I’m actually helping people who come to Our Community Place?” The book explains how charities often measure what they’ve given, in dollars or man hours, but they fail to measure the effect of their contribution over the long term. He knew he had to adjust his energy from giving as much as possible to making lasting changes in people’s lives. The Friday Lunch Restaurant, an idea inspired by Sisters of the Road in Portland, Oregon, would do just that.
Ron started fundraising for a kitchen renovation that would allow Our Community Place members to run their own restaurant, and within a couple years, Ron and Our Community Place brought that goal to this side of reality.
A Week at OCP
Many people wonder how exactly OCP works. This humble community center with its colorful front yard welcomes all people for meals; shelter from the elements; laundry and showers; and phone and internet. But beyond these basic needs OCP members might have, the center also provides various activities, programs, and training. Anyone can come to Our Community Place; however, there are house rules everyone must follow. People can become members at OCP by completing a 3-month trial period.
There’s something to do each weekday at OCP, which provides the consistency and loving community that many of Harrisonburg’s disenfranchised need. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, OCP offers a free meal for all. Tuesdays are Volunteer Work Days. Anyone interested in working that day must sign up by 10am, and volunteers share a meal together. On Fridays, people who want to volunteer in the restaurant must sign up ahead of time and arrive by 10am. Since this group of people could be different week to week, Ron conducts on-the-spot training every single Friday, and the doors open at 11:30. People who work a Friday Lunch shift also share a meal together. In case you weren’t keeping track, that’s five free meals every week available to members and volunteers. Volunteers also earn stars on Tuesdays and Fridays they can spend on meals and services provided to them by OCP.
Friday Lunch Restaurant
With the exception of a small hired kitchen staff who plans menus and cooks the meal, the Friday Lunch Restaurant is staffed and run by OCP volunteers and members. These folks come from all walks of life, but many of them have experienced homelessness and other challenges that make integration into the larger community difficult. The Friday Lunch Restaurant helps them learn new skills, and as a result, members often find jobs outside of OCP. Additionally, OCP members and volunteers have an opportunity to contribute to their community. Working hard will result in more customers, which will help OCP grow. Finally, what many people want is a connection that lasts longer than a single free meal. They want to be loved, and they want to feel like they have a part in their own success. Ron Copeland has found a way to give all of that. He’s not necessarily feeding a thousand people at once like he might have wanted to 25 years ago; he’s empowering individuals, something no quota could ever sufficiently measure.
When you arrive at the Friday Lunch Restaurant, you’ll see that the OCP family room, as it were, has been transformed into a bright, clean, airy dining room with several small tables and one giant community table. So if you happen to be alone for lunch, your loneliness will not extend past the threshold of the front door. You get to select one appetizer, one entree, one dessert, and one beverage from the menu for just $8 or one star. The menu is nothing to scoff at. They serve dishes like Lentil Apple Curry Soup, Pesto Fettuccine with Meatballs and Garlic Rosemary Bread, Death by Chocolate Cake, Baba Ganoush with Bagel Chips, Eggplant Parmesan, and Broccoli Cheddar Quiche. The service is efficient, polite, and friendly. I’ve eaten there twice now, and it’s been fantastic from start to finish.
Our Community Place seeks to cultivate a community of restoration and hope. Hope is a thin filament, spun by a tired heart. It’s what remains when all else has gone wrong. When a person feels he has no control over his life, that filament disappears in the darkness. But, if that person can regain a tiny sliver of control, he’ll feel more hopeful. OCP gives its members a measure of control and a sense of purpose. It allows the most severely marginalized to take part in the reconstruction of their lives. Everyone deserves to have this power. Our Community Place gives people that “Free Food For All” and, more importantly, empowers them.
So what does OCP need from Harrisonburg? Customers! They want a full dining room every single Friday. You can also support their food industry endeavors by attending a Night Out. These special four-course meals occur one Saturday a month and are sometimes collaboration meals with local restaurants. If you can’t get to OCP during these times, you can still be a customer by ordering box lunches for conferences, meetings, and events! And homemade, fresh basil pesto will be debuting soon at Friendly City Food Co-op and the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market.
Friday Lunch Restaurant is open every Friday from 11:30 – 1:30. Our Community Place is located at 17 E. Johnson Street.
Photo Credit: Michael Sheeler